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In the animal kingdom, it would be easy to believe that there was no rhyme or reason to the way that creatures mate. They’re in the wild, after all, so surely they just breed with whichever of the same species is nearby, right?
Well, in some cases, that is true, but among avian species, there is a lot of loyalty, and many birds in fact mate for life.
What are Monogamous Birds?
Amazingly, birds are very similar to humans when it comes to finding a mate. Much like you and I, a pair of birds might court one another, and the males will woo the females before they even stand a chance of getting close to mating.
Even more interestingly, birds will often stay with the same partner, raising a family and forming a home. And just like us, one bird may stray and mate with another but this can often lead to the pair separating.
Monogamy is a term that refers to the practice of having one partner at a time. In humans, there’s a serious amount of emotion involved in this idea, and while birds may be less emotionally intelligent, they are like us in some ways.
Many people assume that monogamy means staying with the same partner for the rest of your life. While this is possible among birds, it doesn’t usually happen. Pairs will remain together for some time but may move on later in life, just like us.
Are Monogamous Birds the Same as Birds That Mate for Life?
Monogamy means having one partner at a time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the bird is tied to keeping that same partner for the rest of its life. When we talk about monogamous birds, we are referring to the fact that they will remain in a pair for most of, or the entirety of the breeding and nesting period as well as to raise the young.
While there are as few as 5% of monogamous mammals, up to 90% of all bird species behave in this way, but it’s very different from mating for life.
The swan is a fine example of a bird that will mate for life. This means that the same two birds will reproduce together over the course of their lives. Scientists believe that one of the reasons for this is that these birds, among others, that mate for life, live longer. Having a strong bond with another of the same species is beneficial in many ways including when it comes to raising their young.
Why Do Some Bird Species Mate for Life?
When you or I choose a partner for life, we base this largely on how we feel about the person. Emotions play a very significant role, but this isn’t usually the case for birds who base their choices on genes.
It’s All About Timing
For larger bird species, it’s not possible to have several broods every year. Many big birds will have just one each year owing to the fact that the eggs take longer to incubate. If the birds did not have a partner lined up, they’d have to ‘waste time’ finding one.
However, when they are already part of a pair, the birds can get started early when breeding season comes around, giving them lots of time to take care of their family.
Improved Chances of Survival
Think about it; if you had a child with one person and raised that child, you’d learn about each others’ parenting techniques. But if you had a baby with a different person every year, getting to know how to parent would be more difficult, and this would impact the child.
One of the reasons that some birds mate for life is so that they can more effectively take care of their young. Learning how to function as a family and raise young together is a skill and ensures a greater chance of survival for the young.
For big birds like swans and geese, migrating can really take it out of them. The last thing they want to do before heading off on a long journey is expend energy trying to find a mate.
For birds, it’s not as simple as joining a dating app or hooking up in a bar. These animals have to put effort into mating rituals, dances and other things, which can be exhausting. Having a mate for life means they only have to go through this once as opposed to every year.
Types of Birds That Mate for Life
Mating for life is serious business and it is, as we have discussed, different from being monogamous. So let’s take a closer look at some bird species that are in it for the long haul.
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
The swan is perhaps one of the most famous birds to mate for life. A pair of swans with their necks making a heart shape has long been a symbol of romance for humans. That said, research has shown that as many as 3% of swans will divorce, and this number rises to 9% among pairs that do not breed successfully.
Otherwise, these birds will remain together until death, and during the breeding season, the males can be quite territorial, with their black bulbous noses swelling up.
Once a pair has selected one another, the male will join the female’s territory if she is older than him. Otherwise, she will join him. Swans lay between five and seven eggs each breeding season.
Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)
The emperor penguin is another well-known monogamous bird, although surprisingly, only 15% of these birds manage to find their previous partner when returning to a colony. That said, the colony could contain as many as 5000 to 10000 other penguins, so that’s still pretty impressive.
Penguins have a lengthy 6 week courtship period in which they use calls to impress their potential partner. When they pair up, the birds will go silent until the eggs are laid. When this happens, the female lays a single egg which she rapidly gives to the male to take care of while she dives deep into the ocean to hunt.
Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur)
Turtle doves have a remarkable courtship ritual which involves the male flapping his wings to create a whistling sound. He will also puff out his chest and bob his head, and when the female begins bobbing her head in return, it’s a successful pairing.
These birds lay a total of two eggs per clutch, and it’s typically the female that will go in search of food.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Bald eagles are majestic animals that have just as mighty a courtship ritual. They will lock their talons together and perform what is known as a cartwheel display. Bound together, the birds will spin, twist, and flip until they seemingly fall to the ground, only unlocking at the last minute.
Once bonded, they’ll remain together for life and each year will return to the same nest which they’ll continue adding to. These nests are very strong and some can get as tall as 4 ft and as wide as 6 ft!
The female will lay between one and three eggs each year and will typically only move on when their partner dies. However, they don’t stay together year-round, separating for migration and then repairing when they return to their nest.
Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)
In the wild, the South American scarlet macaw can live for up to 33 years. When kept as a pet, they could live twice as long, but in any case, they’ll form a strong bond with their significant other.
These birds will woo each other by preening and feeding one another and these behaviors will continue throughout the course of their time together.
Females lay between two and four eggs each season, and the pair will not mate again until all of the young have left the nest.
Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis)
The Laysan albatross doesn’t actually reach sexual maturity until it is between eight and nine years old. When it is ready to find a mate, the bird will take part in a dancing ritual, and even after they have found their partner, they’ll continue this behavior to impress them.
These birds only lay a single egg each year, so they take very good care of it. While they may fly out very far across the ocean, the Layton albatross will return to the same nesting site every year. There is some social monogamy among these birds, but they largely remain together.
In fact, when one bird dies, it can take the other between one and two years to go through their mourning period and find a new mate.
Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
The red-tailed hawk is a very loyal bird that will stay with its partner for life, typically only finding a new mate if one of the pair dies.
They don’t reach sexual maturity until they are around 3 years old, and at this point will perform a spectacular flight ritual to attract a mate. Once they find one, the birds will spend time preening one another before they breed.
Red-tailed hawks generally lay between one and five eggs, with three being the norm. However, they are in deep competition with owls for nesting spots which can become very aggressive.
Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)
The most interesting thing about the sandhill crane is that these birds will make very loud mating calls when they’re looking for a partner. This is called unison calling, as both the male and the female do it together.
Once they have attracted a potential mate, the male will perform a courtship dance which he will continue doing over the years to impress his partner.
Females lay between one and three eggs, but it is the male that will guard the nest. Nests are usually made in marshy or boggy environments.
Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
Black vultures are incredibly serious about mating for life. So much so that if a male is seen approaching or copulating with a female that isn’t his, the entire flock will turn on him and attack!
Couples stay together throughout the year, and they’ll woo each other, with the males chasing the females through the air.
During each breeding season, the female black vulture will lay around two eggs and the pair will take it in turns incubating them. They’ll typically switch every 24 hours. Nests are made either in the ground or in a cavity.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
The main focus of the osprey when looking for a mate is to show that they can provide food and nesting materials which is why, during their initial mating flight, they can be seen holding materials and fish in their talons.
They aren’t ready to mate until they’re around three years old but when they find a partner, they’ll generally stick with them for life.
Males will arrive at the breeding ground a few days before the females show up. In their pairs, the males can be seen feeding the females as this tends to make them more receptive to breeding.
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
One of the most common songbirds found in North American gardens, the Northern cardinal is another bird that mates for life. That said, there are some cardinals that show signs of polygamy and this has been demonstrated in studies where chicks were DNA tested showing 35% came from a bird outside of the pair.
Couples will remain together for the entire year, and to win the females over, the male puts on all kinds of physical displays as well as feeding her.
These birds tend to breed twice a year, with around one to five eggs in each clutch. However, the second clutch is usually overrun by the parasitic cowbird.
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
The blue jay is another type of songbird that mates for life and these feathered friends really only part when one of them dies. Amazingly, these birds can live as long as 26 years when they are in captivity but they only last around 7 years when they’re in the wild.
However, the blue jay is usually ready to mate at the age of just one, so they don’t waste any time. While the female spends time incubating her three to six eggs, the male will find food and bring it back to her.
Crows (Corvus spp.)
Crows are common birds, but they’re very secretive about their mating habits, especially when you compare them to other similar species like the rook. What we do know is that, while they mate for life, crows do show a high level of promiscuity.
When it comes to impressing one another, crows do this by building a nest together. And it’s just as well that they both play a part in this since they’ll be using it for their entire 20-year lifespan!
Chickadees (Poecile spp.)
The black-capped chickadee is known to mate for life. What is surprising is that there haven’t been any obvious courtship rituals displayed by these birds. Instead, it seems that the males simply chase the female to let her know he is interested.
The birds will only pair with other birds of the same ranking, and the females have even been known to ‘upgrade’ the following year if she spots a male of a higher ranking.
When they’re together, chickadees will work as a pair to excavate a tree for nesting, where the female will lay between six and eight eggs.
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
Atlantic puffins are beautiful birds that are known to remain faithful to one partner. They don’t stay together all year as the birds will migrate separately, but they’ll return to one another when mating season comes around.
An interesting fact about these birds is that they can flap their wings 400 times per minute, seeing them flying at speeds of up to 55mph!
When courting, the Atlantic puffin will engage in a ritual known as billing where the pair will rub their beaks together. Females only lay one egg per year, and both birds will play a role in caring for it.
Lovebirds (Agapornis spp.)
The name of these birds tells you everything you need to know, and it’s adorable to watch lovebirds showing each other affection. However, they can be quite aggressive during breeding season as their hormones rage wild.
These birds are ready to mate at just ten months old and will engage in a courtship ritual that involves feeding one another. They’ll keep doing this over the course of their time together and make nest holes where the female will lay between three and five eggs.
Lovebirds form very strong bonds and feel great sadness when their partner dies, spending a good period of time in mourning. However, they do live as long as 15 years!
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
The barn owl only lives for around two years, and most will mate just once in their lifetime, but they’ll remain loyal to their partner throughout.
When impressing a potential mate, the male will chase the female and perform flight rituals. During this time, both male and female will make screeching sounds. The male’s ritual is very elaborate, with head bobbing, wing spreading, bowing, leaping, and tossing.
The pair, when bonded, will go in search of a nest and will repeatedly copulate every few minutes during this time. Females lay between two and three eggs per clutch.
Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)
Canada geese don’t have a specific mating ritual, but they will choose a partner based on its size; it’s all about genetics, you know!
These aquatic birds can lay up to ten eggs per clutch, and the male and female will form a creche with their young. It’s almost like a human family in the way they take care of one another.
What’s interesting is that the female lays her eggs up to a day and a half apart, and the pair won’t start incubating them until all have been laid. Moreover, in mating season, the geese will molt, rendering them unable to fly, so they will often fall victim to predators.
California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)
California condors only lay one egg each year, and this can take as long as 56 days to hatch. What’s more, these birds don’t reach sexual maturity until at least the age of six, more commonly it will happen around age eight.
When they are ready to mate, they will perform a wonderful aerial display to attract a partner, but even then, they only tend to breed once every two years.
The pair continues their aerial acrobatics when searching for a nesting spot. Once they’re happy and the young have hatched, they will co-parent for as long as a year when the chicks finally fledge.
What is Social Monogamy?
Social monogamy happens when a bird will select a mate to breed with and help them raise their young. However, the male may also mate with several other females and this is done for both genetic and non-genetic reasons.
In these situations, males will gather and put on displays for the females in the hopes of being selected. Amazingly, some females will mimic other successfully breeding females to become the most popular choice for mating.
While the pair will partner up during the breeding season, it is not uncommon for one or the other to play away. In fact, research has shown that this happens more often than not with around 75% of all socially monogamous birds having ‘affairs.’
What Happens When a Monogamous Bird Losses its Mate?
Imagine being paired for life only for one of the pair to die. For humans, this is a very upsetting turn of events, but how does this work in the avian community?
In most cases, a ‘widowed’ bird will eventually move on but this doesn’t always happen immediately. For example, with swans, when one of the pair dies, it can take several years for the remaining swan to find a new mate. In general, this takes around two years, but there have been examples of swans taking as many as five or six years to move on.
In other species, the behavior may be very different. Take the peregrine falcon for example, most of the time when a mate dies, the nest will be abandoned. However, there have been instances in which the remaining bird will bring in a new partner to help them take care of the young.
Parrots that mate for life will generally move on with a new partner pretty quickly. But if you keep one of these intelligent birds as a pet then you may notice that when its mate dies, it becomes lonely and will be a lot more vocal than usual.
There were rumors circulating online in 2018 that the baya weaver bird died alongside its companion but this has since been proven to be incorrect. For starters, these birds are not even monogamous, and just imagine what it would do to the population if it were true.